The V&A's new show of Italian fashion focuses on "Glamour". It's actually super political

Later this week, the V&A opens its new show, The Glamour of Italian Fashion.

Which sounds like it’ll be all flounce.

It’s not.

Even before the show opens, it’s given me a total education in the origins of modern Italian fashion.

Origins the Italian fashion industry probably doesn’t talk about that much, because it’s about Italy post-Mussolini.

Here’s an image from the accompanying catalogue of Florence in February, 1946.


Fashion was used as an industry to revive the nation, both home and abroad.

It’s an extraordinary story, and an important one for understanding Italian fashion today.

I met with the show’s curator, Sonnet Stanfill, the V&A’s curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion, to talk through it all. We’re in the V&A’s cafe, a pot of tea each, a scone for me. To begin, Sonnet gives some background: she’s American, with a retail background, so she has a very specific take on curating, with an interest in the business of fashion. She studied in Italy, and spends as much of her time there as she can. Later on in our conversation, when talking about the regionalism of the country, she’ll say that it’s the sort of comprehensive show that can only really be done by an institution outside of Italy itself.  As we join the conversation, I’ve just asked Sonnet about the origins of modern day Italian fashion, and how it’s deeply political…

SS: It’s very, very political. There’s a lot of documentation in the archives that suggests how closely the American and Italian governments worked together to use fashion as a rehabilitator, not just economic but also political, to move the perception of Italy away from Fascism, which was obviously discredited, and move it towards something more palatable to the West. The American government directly supported Italy’s efforts and followed those early fashion shows very closely.

CP: What was the Italian government like straight after the war? Was it Italian, or imposed?

Yes, Italian, but of course the Marshall plan injected large quantity of cash [the Marshall Plan was officially called the European Recovery Program, in operation for four years from 1948]. Just like the rest of Europe, Italy struggled after the war, but it wasn’t just cash. It was also things like reduced prices on raw goods, so part of the reason why Pucci beachwear was so successful was that he had access to huge stashes of American cotton, and at a very affordable price. So it was in America’s best interest to promote that because it meant that it helped them clear their stores.

I’ve included a few wartime dresses, one of which has the mark of guarantee, to show what a fascist frock looked like, and to talk about their attempts to regulate production. And then we go straight into the Sala Bianca [the hall in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, where a Florentine buying agent, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, staged fashion shows in the 1950s], which is all about glamorous gowns, but behind that is a whole infrastructure of effort, mainly led by one man, Mr Giorgini, mainly to organise the Italian fashion industry with one place for buyers and press to come to see all of the collections. Because of course Italy had Turin as the capital during the war, and also had Milan, Rome and Florence, the North American buyers just couldn’t deal with that. So Giorgini organised these shows. For the first time they were internationally attended, and the American ambassador came, there were members from the Italian business economic organisation based in New York to notify their American counterparts that this was happening. It was fashion, but it was serious. It was business.

[Here’s an image of a show at the Sala Bianca in 1955, Photo by GM Fadigati, © Giorgini Archive, Florence]

The Birth of Italian Fashion

Was any of this before Dior’s New Look?

No. I wish I could say, no the first show that Giorgini organised in Florence was in his house, and that was in February in 1951.

OK so it was a bit after.

And the first event in the Sala Bianca was the following year, that was in ‘52. So it was a few years after Dior’s New Look, and I think that Giorgini was very conscious of that. And in some ways I would compare what Giorgini did for the Italians to what Dior did for the French. Bringing everyone together, rallying around a cause. In Dior’s case, his label saved French couture after the war, or he launched it. With Giorgini, he was an impresario and he was a showman, hewooed all the buyers and press with suppers and balls and organised that plan all around the fashion shows to give them a reason to come back. And of course he invited all the aristocrats that he could because, and I can say this, the Americans love a nice title, a bit of nobility. So the contess and contessa were there alongside the buyers.

I’ve been to a menswear presentation in Florence and Prince Michael of Kent turned up for some reason – it still happens today. And Dior was selling more than just his brand – he was selling the idea of decadence as being something to be celebrated.

Yes, and it was difficult to do that in Italy, because the physical landscape was so much in ruin. And also the Italians were still impoverished. And many of them were still agricultural labels and were illiterate. And so a country of peasants couldn’t really afford what was on the Sala Bianca catwalk, which made the Americans probably even more crucial to the Italian market than the French. Of course they were Dior’s best customers as well, but to the Italians they really were the holy grail.

And so would they call themselves couturiers rather than designers?

Well in Italian it could be sartoria, which is dressmaker, and there were different levels. And we’ve talked a little about the local sartoria, which was like going to your local tailor or dressmaker, which we have examples of those in the show, those gowns, which probably didn’t have a maker’s label inside, and were slightly anonymous operations, still to a very high standard of quality .then above them you had the couture houses, which were mainly in Rome and Milan, and a bit in Florence, the known names. And after the war many more houses were founded once the economy recovered somewhat.

And I suppose Rome has traditionally been the seat of Italian couture, you had houses like the Fontana Sisters, which were deeply important, located just behind the Spanish steps, they successfully catered to both the Italian well-to-do, but also all of the American actresses who were in Rome filming. Ava Gardner was one of their best clients, so they were able to make the Americans feel at home in their salon, but also had Italian clients as well.

But that I think was the unique element of Giorgini’s skill. Because Italy is a very regional country and it still is. They’re pretty open about their regional prejudices. To convince people from Rome and Milan to converge in Florence was no small achievement.

Were there brands that Chanel who stopped at the outbreak of World War II, and then started again, or were most new brands?

There were, but many of them started after the war. Some were operating before, but the war was a real interrupter, and in fact many of the houses had to change their name during the war, because they all tried to sound French, to make them seem more aligned with Paris fashions, and then during the war it was against the law to have a non-Italian sounding name. So they had to have Italianise, if that’s the right word, their name.

I suppose houses that exist now as massive conglomerates that were founded before the war started as luggage – Prada was, Gucci was – or shoes – Ferragamo.

Yes, leather goods. Then after that group of early 20th century foundings, in terms of our story, the only designer who was present at the first fashion show in Giorgini’s house that’s still in operation today was Pucci. Because he started in the late 40s with skiwear, then branched out, he went from the ski slopes to the beaches. And so he’s really important to the story.

It’s a very different story from Paris, because the modern idea of Italian fashion is pretty much post-WWII. Even though the industry loves to use language like “legendary” and “classic” and “iconic”, it’s a recent development.

Yes, I agree. I hope I’m not biased, because I’m American, but I think that what happened was those dressmakers and couture houses existed before the war. But what happened after the war was those fashion shows that Giorgini organised really made everybody, just whipped everybody into shape. They had to be professional; they had to show collections twice a year. They had to appeal to the American market and perhaps in some ways become more commercial. And they had to be able to speak to the press and be articulate, and had to be business people to produce to a high standard. And a lot of them started to travel, do trunk shows, in Canada, North America, San Francisco. They were entering the real world, the grown up world of the fashion industry for the first time.

At what point did Italy itself feel like it was back on its feet?

That would have been from the late 1950s. Italy joined most of Europe in the so called boom, the economic miracle, where their economic fortunes turned around. Of course Fiat had a lot to do with that, and their factories employed huge numbers of people. But then of course the textile industry that went alongside the fashion industry was essentially important in areas like Como, for employment and also increasing the prestige of products made in Italy and how they were perceived in the rest of the world. So it was a whole kind of, everything lifted all together in manufacturing across different industries.

And then the look was there for the film industry.

Well I think that when we in the exhibition, we go from the Sala Bianca period into what I call the Hollywood on the Tibor phenomenon. Because the American market was so important, the Hollywood celebrities filming on-and-off location with Rome as a backdrop, that did so much to publicise Italian fashion and Italy as a kind of idea to the wider world. And all of the shenanigans of the actors on-and-off set, and their affairs, Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra, some of it was salacious gossip, but all of those paparazzi photographs showed them in Italian fashion. So a whole generation of designers benefited from the ambient glow of that media spotlight, and all rose up together. So in that section of the exhibition we do have some film costume, but for the most part it’s dresses worn by figures of note. For example we have a dress worn by Ava Gardner, we have a dress worn by Maria Callas, and we also have perhaps more interesting in this story of how the dynamic of patronage affected designers, is that in 1966 Truman Capote’s Black And White Ball was attended by two of the best dressed women in the world, who both chose an Italian to dress them, so that was Marella Agnelli and also Princess Lee Radziwill, and they both chose Mila Schön, a  Milanese designer, for what some people called the party of the decade. So that was 15 years after the first show in Giorgini’s house, and it just shows how far Italian fashion had come in 51, no Americans knew any of these designers, and 15 years later, there they were, in fact Marella Agnelli wore first prize for best dress woman in her Mila Schön, and Lee Radziwill only got third. Her dresses is better, it’s actually my favourite, if I could walk out with one piece it’d be that one.

[Here’s an image from the catalogue of Truman Capote with Lee Radziwill in her third placed dress, which will be in the V&A exhibit]


It’s weird thinking of Italian fashion as being a novelty.

In the Sala Bianca section we have about a dozen gowns, and I bet that most people that come into that exhibition will never have heard of a single one. And I would hazard that be true of most Italians as well. It’s a great feeling to feel like we’re shining a spotlight on these names that have been forgotten and telling a bit of their story. The one exception I would make would be Roberto Capucci, because he had such a long career, he’s still alive, and he continued designing up until the late 80s.

How did you know which of these unknown dressmakers to go to?

The Giorgini archive is housed in the state archives of Florence, and I spent quite a bit of time there. He saved everything, so there’s all these albums with invitations to the fashion shows, invitations to the balls, press clippings and also programmes for each of the fashion weeks so we know who showed at the first show, who showed at the second show. So we’ve tried to include examples from those designers that were at the first two shows. They don’t all date from 51, 52, but they’re designer names from that early story. It was like truffle hunting trying to find these pieces.

Was it ‘60s-ish that individual names started to become designers?
I would say even in the 50s, and there are, the press reports that come out of those shows, Giorgini was amazing, he did save everything, of course it was self-promotion because he was chronicling his own life and success, but the European press, the American press were very complimentary about all these new names. And of course fashion there’s always this hunger for the next new thing. By ’51,  the North American market was looking for the next fresh patch after Dior’s New Look. The Italians provided all of these couture houses that no-one had heard of, it felt exciting. They were proper couturiers. They had labels, they had staff, they were good at promotion, they had a logo, they advertised.

Were they mostly occasionwear or were they doing daywear?

The unique thing about the Sala Bianca, about Giorgini’s presentations, was that from the very first event in his house, he showed beachwear, cocktail dresses, evening gowns. So when you went to see the shows in Florence, you saw shorts and playsuits and bikinis and swimwear along with evening gowns. And so the sportswear, and what became moda boutique, which was a kind of in-between ready-to-wear and couture, it’s like small batches of well-designed but partially machine made stylish clothes, that was the engine of Italian fashion. Because of its price, couture was a limited distribution. And the American market had an insatiable appetite for this informal easy dressing that the Italians really excelled at.


And from here we carry on to talk about that state of Italian fashion today, the implications for “Made In Italy” of the upcoming European Parliament debate about the labelling laws, and all sorts of other stuff. When we are talking about how Turin was seen as the centre of Italian fashion during the war, she says that Mussolini attended fashion shows there. There’s apparently film footage of Mussolini saluting from the catwalk. I’d love to see it.

Security staff keep coming by the table – the museum was about to close. And so I turn my machine off, and Sonnett headed back to her work, to finish installing a day early.

Sadly, I’m going to be away for the opening of the show this week.

I’m off to the Glasgow International.

But I’ll go see on my return.

It opens 5 April, until 27 July. Click here for more info etcetc. Go see.